Messenger Archives - January 2006
Finally Helen and I, Belltowners, were on our way to China after an attempt to get there two years earlier had been waylaid by SARS. Now, after a long flight to Beijing, our tour director, a lovely Chinese native of intelligence and beaming personality, met our group of 21 Americans at the airport and whisked us away to a magnificent hotel in the heart of Beijing.
There was more marble and granite in this large and opulent hotel than in most American counterparts. The luxury was probably not what Mao Zedong would have prescribed, but it wasn't long before he made his dour appearance. One stop at the hotel's currency exchange desk in the morning brought his round, somber face on every denomination of yuan, the Chinese paper currency.
We met Mao again later in the day in the form of a 25-foot high mural on a wall of the Forbidden City facing Tiananmen Square. Opposite this imposing mural at the other side of the square, and several blocks away, was his mausoleum, a stately and sizable building of pillars and off-white stone. Like the monuments erected in all countries for their past leaders, this one is honored by pilgrims from all over China.
Our tour director had informed us on the bus in route to this section of the city, that Mao's Cultural Revolution had been a failure; but even so, he was obviously still held in esteem. His mistake had been to follow the Soviet model that had also collapsed. Later a local Chinese guide informed us that Mao had come from a rural, agricultural region and had wanted to improve the lot of his compatriots.
After Mao's death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping, a longtime associate of Mao who'd been out of favor, took over the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party and opened the country to free-market enterprise and foreign investment. This new direction in China's economy was evident to our group every time we walked towards our tour bus, wherever we were and whatever time it was. Vendors surrounded us, showed their wares and proclaimed, "one dolla, one dolla," for caps, t-shirts, fake Rolex watches, and vinyl purses. When you showed interest, the price changed, especially if the item was an "automatic" Rolex. Although this street merchandising reminded me of many beaches in Mexico where I didn't consider buying a "fake" Rolex, I now paid $7 for one and was quite proud of myself until a neighbor traveler in the bus related that he'd bought two of the same for $10.
Another instance of the booming economy in Beijing was the logo on the vendors' caps, announcing the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. Preparations were evident in the considerable number of new hotels and restaurants around the city. New freeways, monorail (Seattlites might consider this avenue for getting their own long overdue monorail), airport, airplanes, buses, and a vast number of new office, apartment, and condominium buildings also spoke to a thriving economy. Although our adventure in this most thriving of profitable ventures by Chinese capitalists, tourism, was just beginning, Helen and I were already aware of the dramatic contrasts that were upon us and in front of us for our two-week stay in China.
© 2006 Belltown Messenger